fbpx

Crossing The Tibetan Plateau

A 4000km overland journey from Beijing to Nepal, leaving the modern city behind and heading back in time to a land of largely unchanged culture, for now!

 

The cold was so intense our drinking water on the bedside table had frozen solid over night, my lips had begun to turn blue and I was struggling to hold back nausea from the onset of altitude sickness. I’ll be honest, sleeping at Everest base camp wasn’t the best nights sleep of life, and despite the incredible surroundings I couldn’t wait to be at lower altitudes. From Beijing across China & Tibet to Nepal, this was a journey of extremes, where you can witness worlds colliding in the here and now, experience the highest region on Earth, see huge modern cities with exploding wealth and populations, to a culture on the decline with an uncertain future.

 

It’s late April 2020 when I am writing this. Half of the planet are living under varying measures of lock down due to a virus called SARS-CoV-2. And like myself, millions of people around the world are finding themselves out of work and hibernating at home with little to do until for an unspecified amount of time until life returns to normal. Most travel, especially internationally is largely a thing of the past for now. And we are looking forward to some point in the future when we will be able to once again give in to wanderlust and start planning a trip to some where in the world we have always wanted to visit, or maybe somewhere we hadn’t even considered.

 

I thought I would take this time, while sitting on the sofa watching documentarys about Space, Motorbikes, and working my way through the entire back catalogue of Breaking Bad to write some words to go with photos I have taken on recent journeys, near and far.

 

I have never actually travelled with photography being the primary goal, for now I would rather not feel under pressure to take photos while travelling, and instead really take in my surroundings and get to know a place. So the following series of galleries I am going to post are random, unplanned images taken mostly on the spare of the moment when ever I was feeling in the right frame of mind. Basically what I’m saying is yes I’m a professional photographer, but, don’t expect anything ground breaking here. Oh, and I should mention I’m no writer either! In short here’s my holiday snaps, and I’ll bore you with stuff I found interesting.

 

But, I also want to be very frank about things, especially in this first story about my time in China. I think too many travel stories are only about the nice fuzzy stuff, but that’s often only half the story. When taking photos, even at weddings, I always aim to capture the reality, warts and all, so I’m going to do the same here in my little story about crossing the Tibetan plateau.

 

Tibet, a land of mountains Dalai Lama

First a little information about Tibet. It’s a mystical place everyone has heard of, and most people know a little something about it. If you want a good movie to watch and a little back ground on the political situation in Tibet I recommend the film ‘7 Years in Tibet’ with Brad Pitt. It’s a mostly true story that tells you something of what you should know about the country, oh and Brad Pitt was banned from China for life for being part of the film if that helps temp your curiosity. I hadn’t actually seen the film myself, so while in Tibet we decided to watch it to learn a little about the recent history. Well what do you know, as far as China is concerned the film doesn’t exist, and the Communist Party do their very best to make sure no one else in China ever hears of it’s existence. And you won’t get anywhere by trying to Google the history of Tibet while in China. Because Google, along with a whole host of websites are censored. You simply cannot get onto many of the websites we take for granted. More about all this later!

 

Tibet itself is the highest region on Earth, the average altitude is 5000 meters and home to Mt Everest. It’s an incredible place and like nowhere else we visited during this trip or anywhere I’ve ever been, It’s like going back in time (although Tibetan Monks do have iPhone Xs!). The time of year we visited added to the ancient feel of the place, we arrived there in late December, so that meant pretty much zero western tourists, in fact we crossed the entire country seeing all of about about 10 other tourists.

 

But first, the pre story, story

 

Tibet isn’t an easy place to visit, the cost and process of getting there depend on where you are from. So apart from the remote location and distances what makes it hard to get to? As a comparison what does it take to visit somewhere like Spain for example?…
– Get to the Spanish border
– Show passport
– Enter Spain.

 

Now what did it take for my other half to reach Tibet?…
– Find agent/guide in Tibet (a requirement by law)
– Apply on-line for Chinese Visa
– Present Chinese visa via email to the agent in Tibet
– Apply for Tibetan ‘invitation’ with Chinese visa and itinerary letter from agent
– Visit Chinese embassy in London with Tibetan invitation (if accepted) and take interview about reasons for travel
– Return to Embassy 2 weeks later to get accept or decline letter
– Re-new current passport because more recent passport required
– Travel again to Chinese embassy to re-apply with new passport
– Return to embassy 2 weeks later to get acceptance or decline letter (result declined!)
– Wonder what the hell to do now!…
– Fly to Beijing anyway in the hope to enter country on old passport
– Be interrogated at Chinese customs in airport
– Enter China!!!
– Show all paperwork boarding train for Tibet
– Travel on train to Tibet
– Show paperwork again on train at 1am when passing into Tibet
– Exit train and set foot in Tibet
– Show all paperwork & another interview when leaving train station
– You are finally in Tibet!!!….

 

The Route

Map ofBeijingto Lhasa, Tibet, Qinghai-Tibet Railway

We flew into Beijing a few days before Christmas Day, where we spent 3 days seeing the city. We then boarded the highest train in the world to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, for a nearly 2 day journey covering 3,757km and reaching the crazy highs of over 5000m. After arriving in Lhasa we were to spend 3 days in the city at to acclimatise to the altitude before setting off on the long journey across the Tibetan Plateau, via the city of Shigatzi and on to Mt Everest, where we would spent the night at Base Camp before leaving Tibet via the land border in the middle of nowhere and into Nepal.

 

Beijing

 

Beijing photography by Matt Lee PhotographyBeijing photography by Matt Lee PhotographyBeijing photography by Matt Lee Photography

When we visited the Forbidden city the perimeter moat was frozen solid, the air was so cold and dry you can feel the moisture in your body almost being sucked away. As we walked through the vast ancient streets, the light grey stone and colourful wood architecture, grand doorways and statues really place you into another age. Everything you imagined ancient China to look like can be summed up here. What really blew me away though was the view from the highest point, which is also the highest point in Beijing (apart from man made structures). Beijing is massive on a scale I hadn’t seen before. If you think London for example is big think again. For as far as you can see the city seems to spread out endlessly, where you think you can see the edge you look harder through the haze and beyond, and still there are skyscrapers and structures disappearing in the distance.

 

The Forbidden city in BeijingBeijing photography by Matt Lee PhotographyThe Forbidden city in BeijingBeijing photography by Matt Lee PhotographyBeijing photography by Matt Lee PhotographyBeijing photography by Matt Lee Photography

The walls of the great Forbidden City, If you see only one place in Beijing I think the old city would be it. Dramatic defensive walls, tranquil gardens hidden at the end of alleyways overlooked by grand temples and images of Bhuda, people practicing with swords in syncronisation and as if in slow motion. We wandered for hours looking in awe at the beauty and details around every corner of the 600 year old city.

 

Beijing photography by Matt Lee PhotographyBeijing photography by Matt Lee PhotographyBeijing photography by Matt Lee PhotographyBeijing photography by Matt Lee PhotographyBeijing photography by Matt Lee Photography

Big Brother is everywhere! Nearly every corner of every street, facial recognition cameras are watching. Even tiny residential side streets areas like this one are monitored 24 hours a day. Chinas social credit system is keeping tabs and using an algorithm to punish or reward you based on your behaviour. What you eat & drink, where you go and what you do is monitored by the CCP.

 

Beijing photography by Matt Lee PhotographyBeijing photography by Matt Lee PhotographyBeijing photography by Matt Lee PhotographyBeijing photography by Matt Lee PhotographyBeijing photography by Matt Lee PhotographyThe Forbidden city in Beijing

During our 3 days in Beijing we hadn’t seen anything of the infamous pollution you hear so much about, nothing but clear blue and slightly hazy skies. To be honest though I didn’t gel with the city. It’s very clean yes, it’s definitely very safe, the underground system is actually quite easy to understand and it’s no doubt it’s a fascinating place. The thing is though there was something in the air I didn’t like, the fact that nearly everywhere you go there’s military and some sort of overbearing enforcement, and you get the distinct feeling they aren’t there to protect their citizens, they are they there to keep them and their thoughts in order. We saw young middle to upper class people enjoying themselves yes, but from everyone else there was little enjoyment, no expressive signs of personality, indications of free expression or alternative thinking. All this being said there is something intriguing about the place that makes me think about it a lot, but it wasn’t really for me and I won’t be hurrying back any time soon. But now a train to catch….

 

Tibet Train and Lhasa Railway photographyTibet Train and Lhasa Railway photographyTibet Train and Lhasa Railway photographyTibet Train and Lhasa Railway photographyTibet Train and Lhasa Railway photography

Our first encounter Tibetan locals came much earlier than expected. We were sitting on the floor of the huge West Beijing railway station, a place the size of a medium sized airport, when it dawned on us we were surrounded and being watched! Not by CCTV cameras this time, we were being observed by about 10 people distinctly different looking than the Beijing locals. They were Tibetans obviously waiting for the same train as us. It seemed we were the first Westerners they had ever seen. Staring in this part of the world isn’t a social faux pas like it is at home, so literally being stared at by 10 people at close quarters was hilarious and we didn’t quite know what to do in this strange situation. I decided to get to my feet and try to communicate, being 6′ 1″ and Tibetans being much smaller, as I got to my feet they all in unison stepped back looking a little concerned. I smiled to help ease the tension and they immediately responded with smiles and laughs. We spent about 10 minutes trying in vein to communicate, one of the Babushkas insisted on pointing at her train ticket and saying something in Tibetan over and over again. We couldn’t understand a word, so with a polite smile and a laugh we headed off to find our train.

 

Tibet Train and Lhasa Railway photographyTibet Train and Lhasa Railway photography

Tibet

As we rolled out the station at about 8pm China time I was excited to watch the city disappear and see some Chinese countryside from the window of our 4 bunk cabin which we shared with a solo Japanese traveller and a Chinese citizen. I wasn’t prepared however for the fact that the city just doesn’t seem to end, the urban landscape went on forever, high rise buildings turned into medium rise buildings, but not any countryside landscape I had expected, I guess I’d have to get comfy in my bunk and wait for the morning.

 

I woke up at about 3am that night, as a thick smokey smell filled our cabin! Looking out the window to see what was going outside, we had pulled into the station of a large city and the smokey smell was from a thick heavy smog hanging in the air of the city. It was so thick I could see it in the soot hanging in the air in front of a passing cars headlights, like on a foggy Winter day. Chinas cities are renowned for being hideously polluted, we hadn’t seen this in Beijing but I guess this is what you hear about.

 

Tibet Train and Lhasa Railway photographyTibet Train and Lhasa Railway photography

When I woke the next morning I excitedly looked out the window to see the desolate beauty of the quiet and treeless landscape of the borderland region between China and Tibet, this is Gansu Province. An area that was once the battle ground of the Chinese and the Mongols. Throughout the day endless plains and frozen lowlands began to rise up into snowy rounded peaks. Every now and then small houses lined the railway line, I was told these houses are where the Tibetan people are being ‘advised/forced’ to re-locate in to by the Chinese Communist Party.

 

The endless plains lasted all day, nothing but frozen wasteland, the occasional house along the railway tracks, a yurt or two on the horizon, the odd glimpse of smalls herds of wild Donkey in the distance. That night at around midnight the train reached it’s highest point of a crazy 5072 metres, higher than the highest mountain peak in western Europe. All the train carriages are equipped with oxygen in case you have problems breathing, thankfully no issues here though.

 

Tibet Train and Lhasa Railway photographyTibet Train and Lhasa Railway photographyTibet Train and Lhasa Railway photography

Lhasa

As the train rolled into Lhasa after nearly two days I was surprised at what my first sight of a Tibetan city looked like. From the outside it looked like the Chinese cities we had seen a day ago while passing through sub-urban China. Construction cranes in the distance look like building of an airport is underway, new modern looking bridges, high rise concrete hotels with corporate branding, and of course portraits of Mao Zedong watching over. Hold on I thought we were in Tibet! It appears the China-fication of Tibet is well underway.

 

Much shouting and commotion from along the carriages of the train, after yet another abrupt check of our papers by the cold and surly military train guard we were allowed to exit the train carriage on the station platform. We exited the station and were shepherded to a portacabin for yet more paperwork checks and questioning, and then finally we were en route via mini bus way towards our hotel for the duration of our 3 day stay (which for the protection of our Tibetan guides I’m not going to show pictures, more on that later). As we moved closer to the centre of the city, the sight of the incredible Potala Palace signalled we were entering the real Lhasa. Arriving at the hotel we put our back packs into our room and left to explore the city.

 

Walking out into the streets we encounter a queue for yet another airport style military/police check point! I couldn’t really believe this, thousands of miles from Beijing and the Tibetan people are forced to justify their movements to the Chinese authoritys! The check point guards didn’t take much notice of us, they pretty much wave us through without checking our bags or paperwork, the Tibetans however are given a full & thorough check.

 

Photography in Lhasa, Tibet, by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Lhasa, Tibet, by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Lhasa, Tibet, by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Lhasa, Tibet, by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Lhasa, Tibet, by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Lhasa, Tibet, by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Lhasa, Tibet, by Matt Lee photography

The Real Lhasa

You have to see it to believe it, the old part of the city is like a scene from a movie set hundreds of years ago, ancient looking buildings, crowds of indigenous sheepskin clad men with wild hair and leathery skin, small statured ladies spinning prayer wheels while walking clockwise laps of the sacred Potala Palace. In the square outside of the 1400 year old Jokhang Temple, the smell of wood burnt smoke hangs in the air bellowing from 10 foot high clay kilns being stoked by devoted Buddhist faithfuls. The red and white walled Potala Palace, former Winter home of the Dalai Lama is visible from everywhere, it’s an incredible sight, watching over us from it’s location perched above the city. I could hardly believe we were in the 21st century, apart from a few Asian tourists with smart phones we could have been 1000 years back in time.

 

Photography in Lhasa, Tibet, by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Lhasa, Tibet, by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Lhasa, Tibet, by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Lhasa, Tibet, by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Lhasa, Tibet, by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Lhasa, Tibet, by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Lhasa, Tibet, by Matt Lee photography

Thanks to the time of year we seemed to be the only westerners in the entire city, which became quite obvious to us from the reaction of the indigenous people. This time of year the largest pilgrimage to Lhasa made by Tibetan Nomads was happening. People with a way of life unchanged for thousands of years living out on the plains, descend onto the city to make pilgrimage around the sacred Potala Palace. We were a bit of an oddity to the young Tibetans especially, being about a foot taller than everyone else and the only two people with bright blonde hair, we stuck out like a sore thumb. At one point two young boys literally stopped in their tracks and stared at us while gasping to each other. At least every 15 minutes we were stopped by locals wanting to shake our hands or have their picture taken with us.

 

Photography in Lhasa, Tibet, by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Lhasa, Tibet, by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Lhasa, Tibet, by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Lhasa, Tibet, by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Lhasa, Tibet, by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Lhasa, Tibet, by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Lhasa, Tibet, by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Lhasa, Tibet, by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Lhasa, Tibet, by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Lhasa, Tibet, by Matt Lee photography

The Potala Palace. Winter home of the Dalai Lama until he was forced to flee the country when China invaded. Out of respect I didn’t take photos inside the Palace. It’s exactly as you’d imagine though, dark atmospheric passages and rooms, the only light shines in from small windows in the thick walls, or a candle flickers away lighting up a dark corner. Thin smoke hangs in the air from the burning of incense, the sound of Monks praying echo all around, in most rooms and passages sitting in corners and alcoves Monks sit studying texts. There are huge piles of money literally everywhere given as offerings by the Tibetans to the monasterys. I’m not religious, but the palace is absolutely enchanting, you can understand why in the absence of modern education you could believe these places are a doorway to something more, and it seems most if not all native Tibetans are still faithful.

 

All around the palace, and the old city for that matter, is the familiar sight of the large facial recognition cameras we saw all over Beijing. This kind of security seemed to me over the top for what surly is such a safe place, so I asked our guide if the cameras are there to keep the ancient architecture safe from eager tourists, or something like that. The actual reason I was told is that the cameras were put there by the Chinese Communist Party to keep close eye on every movement made by the locals and especially the Monks! Seeing this sort of thing is an indication of the changes heading for Tibetan society, it’s hard to imagine what lies in store for the people of Lhasa in the future, I’m glad I visited when I did.

 

Photography in Lhasa, Tibet, by Matt Lee photographyView across Lhasa in TibetMonks in city in TibetPhotography in Lhasa, Tibet, by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Lhasa, Tibet, by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Lhasa, Tibet, by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Lhasa, Tibet, by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Lhasa, Tibet, by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Lhasa, Tibet, by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Lhasa, Tibet, by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Lhasa, Tibet, by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Lhasa, Tibet, by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Lhasa, Tibet, by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Lhasa, Tibet, by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Lhasa, Tibet, by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Lhasa, Tibet, by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Lhasa, Tibet, by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Tibet by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Tibet by Matt Lee photography

Lhasa to Everest

From Lhasa our ultimate destination was the land border between Tibet and Nepal, between there was a 600km journey across the highest region of the frozen plateau to the city of Shigatzi, onto Mt Everest Base Camp and then finally down off the plateau to the border with Nepal.

 

We were due to join our small group of about 10 tourists split into 2 small vehicles for the journey. Lhasa however had already claimed some victims to altitude sickness, and all other members of the group due to be in our vehicle wouldn’t be continuing to Everest for safety reasons. In another twist of fate our original vehicle had a mechanical issue and substituted with a hire vehicle. Why was this important? Well apparently all the usual tourist vehicles are bugged with microphones by the Chinese government so they can listen in on what the guides tell foreigners. This all meant that just for the next 7 days our Tibetan guide who could now speak more openly about his existence as a Tibetan citizen, some details later!

 

Landscape photography in TibetPhotography in Tibet by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Tibet by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Tibet by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Tibet by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Tibet by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Tibet by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Tibet by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Tibet by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Tibet by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Tibet by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Tibet by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Tibet by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Tibet by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Tibet by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Tibet by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Tibet by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Tibet by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Tibet by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Tibet by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Tibet by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Tibet by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Tibet by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Tibet by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Tibet by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Tibet by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Tibet by Matt Lee photography

The scale of the plateau is immense. It goes on forever, nothingness as far as the eye can see in every direction. The air and land is dry and parched, it’s something like you would imagine the surface Mars is like, dust devils whip up flumes of debris and sometimes you can see 3 or 4 rising up in the distance. The road goes on forever in long straight lines broken up by the occasional barrier stopping you at military check points.

 

At each check point we stop and exit the vehicle into a dry dusty lay-by, where a man with an AK47 machine gun watches you walk across into the small concrete, basic, bus stop like building where we are the only non military personal. No pleasantrys are exchanged as you hand your papers to a military official inside the building, not a word or smile, he just stares at you and shouts in Chinese to someone in a back room. He pulls out a book of hand written records where your name and paperwork details are entered onto the list, a photo of your passport and sometimes your face too are taken. Your passport is then thrown back at you and you assume you are free to go. Where those lists and photos end up I have no idea, it seems best not to ask. We continue on.

 

Every now and then along the road there are subtle signs of human life, either some sort of small dwelling or a sandstone looking ruin which were once monasterys before the cultural revolution, when the Chinese army destroyed nearly all the 6000 monasterys in the country in an attempt to wipe out the Tibetan culture.

 

The peaks around us aren’t huge, not seemly as tall or jagged as other mountain ranges I’ve been in, but we are already at 4000+ metres so the peaks we do see are 6000m and above. We stop every few hours to gaze at the expansive view, at each stop there are usually a few semi domesticated animals, there’s always some scraggly looking dogs, sometimes friendly & sometimes dangerous looking, I have no idea how they survive out here.

 

Sometimes the view delivers an oasis of large topaz blue lakes, frozen at the edges and strange ice formations sculpted by the wind. Making your way a few hundred meters down to the lake edges you can really feel you are thousands of meters high, you can breath as fast as you like but you never seem to catch your breath and your legs feel like concrete, so far though I’m feeling ok.

 

Slowly walking around the lakes edge there’s a weathered but hardy looking man with 2 large Yak. I have no idea where he has come from or where he is going, there’s nothing for miles around.

 

We press on into the nothingness. That afternoon to my surprise we encounter a town which appears to have sprung up in the middle of nowhere. It has what looks like a high street with the Tibetan style of buildings lining the unpaved and dusty street. High on the peak overlooking the town there is a monastery joined to an absolutely massive ancient looking fortified wall that surrounds us. This even more so than what have seen up until now looks like a movie set, the setting for some sort of huge battle with Mongol warriors on horse back. The difference with places like this in Tibet to similar castles and ancient buildings in most other parts of the world is that you don’t feel like you are in an attraction. This is in the middle of nowhere, there’s no apparent tourism, no tourist info or tourist signs, it feels like the genuine article and you are seeing something unspoilt and exactly as it was hundreds of years ago.

 

Up inside the monastery, not as large as the ones we had seen in Lhasa, but even here nearly as far into the middle of nowhere as you can go it’s incredible. In one room there’s a Buddha statue nearly the size of a house, it’s bright gold and apparently the plating of this house sized statue is real gold!

 

Before we leave the town I was craving something to eat other than the bowls of plain wet noodle we had eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the last few days. Looking around the small town it appears there is nowhere you can buy food, no small shop, no one selling local food or supplies, nothing. It takes 15 minutes of peering in door to door when I find a doorway into a room which essentially looks like a small dusty garage. On the floor are some old looking mattresses and wooden crates covered by dusty looking duvet covers. The man who showed me in to the house lifts the duvets to reveal to my surprise crates of Apples and Grapes! Bingo, I can’t believe it, this is the first non noodle based food we had seen for ages. I buy as many Apples and Grapes as possible!

 

 

Photography in Tibet by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Tibet by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Tibet by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Tibet by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Tibet by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Tibet by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Tibet by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Tibet by Matt Lee photographyPhotography in Tibet by Matt Lee photographyTibetan monk carrying sackTibetan monk carrying sackSwastika in TibetMonks in TibetYoung boy walking through city in TibetOld ladies in TibetOld ladies in TibetColourful buildings in TibetMonks in city in TibetMonks in city in TibetDonkeys in TibetTibeten lady outside her houseTibeten lady outside her houseTibeten lady outside her houseView across the HimalayasPhoto of sad dog in the HimalayasView across the HimalayasView across the HimalayasView across the HimalayasLong road through ChinaTravelling in Tibet, photo of Mt Everest across Tibet

We Made It!

Two weeks after leaving Berlin we made it to the base of Mt Everest. It’s the middle of Winter, outside the warmer season when the area would be full of climbers, it’s currently 20 below freezing and the air notably thinner. We are the only people here, looking up the valley to the massive peak of Everest. The peak is covered by cloud at the time, a little frustrating, but beautiful in a different way.

 

At this point I’m actually begging to feel pretty rough due to the lack of oxygen, this takes me by surprise because I’ve been in the high mountains countless times with no issue, not this high though and it seems that above the 5000m meter mark is when serious problems can begin. I could feel my condition declining and I was now feeling so rough that even the sight of Everest wasn’t enough to excite me and all I wanted to do was sit down somewhere warm and take a nap, probably the worse thing you can do when suffering with altitude sickness!

 

I tried my hardest to get my head clear, and taking 10 times longer than usual I managed to operate my camera and get a few pictures of the peak, before we walked back to base camp, where Everest expedition parties usually stay. This evening in a warm yurt it was just us and the Tibetan Everest Guides who stay here year round. In the middle of the large domed yurt a stove is burning on a fuel of dried Yak dung, the only easily available fuel they have up at this altitude, and in the corner there’s a TV playing of all things a Bruce Willis action movie!! I would usually find this seriously strange and amusing but I’m now feeling so rough I’ve lost all sense of humour. I can feel my lips going cold and blue, the first signs of serious altitude sickness. I’m not going let this beat me, and there’s no way I’m going to retreat to the safety of lower alltitudes even if it kills me, which it could do. I drink some freshly made Ginger tea which helps a little and I stumble outside the smokey Yurt to get some fresh -25 degree air. I’ve felt a bit like this before on various nights out after too much to drink, all I want to do is get to bed and hope all will be right in the morning. Wrong assumption. I retreat to bed begin the worst night sleep of my life.

 

Our room for the night is a small and dark concrete walled room, we actually have real beds, small wire framed ones but this a luxury I wasn’t expecting. It’s about -10 inside the room but we have sleeping bags and layers of thick blankets. I don’t really know how to describe how I felt during the night as I struggled to sleep. I tried to sleep but I would wake up about every 20 minutes, sometimes I was freezing cold and sometimes boiling hot. It felt a bit like being very drunk while having the Flu. Weird micro dreams come & go as I struggle to try and stay asleep. In my mind I’m actually concerned for my own health and know I should really let someone know how bad I’m now feeling. I resist reaching for the provided oxygen tanks because once you start using it I’m told it’s difficult to re-adjust again.

 

After the longest few hours of my life, at about 4am, thank god it’s time to leave for lower altitudes. We don’t need to get dressed because we fully clothed still. Outside, the sky is now clear unlike the previous evening, it’s so clear and the night sky so dark the stars are numerous in their millions, except for the massive black silhouette of Everest looming in front. This sight is incredible on another lever, but now I’m feeling so bad now that I can’t even get the enthusiasm to lift my camera to my eye. Instead, I stand for a moment, to record and imprint the sight in my mind. To this day years later, I can still visualise that mental image I took.

 

 

Travelling in Tibet, photo of Mt Everest across TibetTravelling in Tibet, photo of Mt Everest across TibetTravelling in Tibet, photo of mountains across TibetEarlymorning photo of the Himalayers

The Road to Katmandu

Heading away from Everest base camp marked the end of our journey from Beijing and across Tibet, and towards the border of Nepal. To then find our way to Kathmandu via the treacherous road out of the Himalayas. But that’s a story for another day.

 

As we descended I was watching the altitude read out in anticipation for the thicker oxygen I’d been waiting for since yesterday afternoon. We finally descend below 5000 meters and almost as if someone had flicked a switch, I could feel the colour coming back into my lips and my brain begin to switch on again. I no longer felt like the aftermath of a heavy night out.

 

Feeling on the up and beginning to feel much more alert we rounded a corner, and there looming up ahead was once again the peak of Everest, now just showing itself in the perfect Dawn light, as a few whisps of cloud floated from the peak. This time managed to lift my camera and get some final photos before descending further down to the lower plains.

 

Mt Everest in the morningTravelling in Tibet, photo of Mt Everest across Tibetmotorbiking across ChinaEndless road in the plains of Tibetruins in TibetLong road in TibetTravelling in Tibet, photo of plains across TibetBlack& White photo of lake in the mountainsTravelling in Tibet, photo of plains across TibetTravelling in Tibet, photo of plains across TibetTravelling in Tibet, photo of plains across TibetTravelling in Tibet, photo of the himalayas, frozen ice

The usual route to the land border between Tibet and Nepal was still closed after a landslide a few weeks ago, so we were heading for the mostly unused by tourists border, and a popular route taken by Nepalese lorries trading with China. The scenery around us was beginning to look much more familiar, the lower altitude and less hostile environment meant life could exist and felt much like mountain ranges in Europe.

 

We had now spent 7 days with our Tibetan guide pretty much to ourselves, and thanks to our vehicle being clean of the usual microphone bugs we learned a lot about the life of Tibetan people under the oppression of the Chinese Communist Party. The guides wouldn’t usually be able to speak freely in case someone from The Party was listening in, so this was a unique insight.

 

I promised this would be a frank account of my experience, so as well as the good it would be only right to talk just a little about the other half of the reality, I want to tell the full story of my insight into Tibet, It just wouldn’t be a true account if half of it was missing. So here’s just a little insight to what we learned about the reality of life as a Tibetan. Feel free to skip if you just want the usual fluffy travel stuff. We were told various stories the likes of which go mostly unheard in the outside world because of censorship and suppression of information.

 

Our guide was very interested in architecture and would tell us how he dreamed of visiting London or Italy, I suggested he should visit us in London and I would repay the favour. He tells me however that as a working class Tibetan there is no way he would be allowed to leave the country! The only way he could leave the borders of of China would be via a path through the high mountains and into Nepal while avoiding Chinese soldiers. A trip he had made when he was young which nearly cost him his life. This is why Tibet is known as the worlds largest open air prison.

 

He told of the time during the Beijing 2012 Olympics when the Olympic torch had passed though Lhasa. Our guide and his family along with every other Tibetan resident of the city were ordered by the barrel of a gun to remain inside their houses and not show themselves to any of the state run TV cameras recording the moment. The government didn’t want any messages being broadcast to the outside world.

 

It seems for Tibetan guides, beatings from Chinese border guards are not an uncommon thing. Our guide had friends who had bones broken and faces smashed for no other reason than being Tibetan. There’s no complaint procedure if your Tibetan, you can’t call someone and report the crime, you have to take your beating and leave, otherwise worse will happen and like many other Tibetans you just disappear.

 

Despite the sobering reality, I absolutely loved Tibet, it was an experience of I life time. But it’s really hard to remember this journey without thinking about what lies ahead for the Tibetan people and their unique culture. Seeing Lhasa it’s so blatantly obvious that the Chinese government are well underway with their plans to exterminate the Tibetan culture, via means of oppression and simple out breeding. It’s almost normal in the West to have a little knowledge about the Tibet/China political situation, but in reality this continues everyday while the world ignores it. If nothing changes, which is unlikely, I’m thankful I saw this place before the seemly inevitable happens and Tibet as it today is no longer.

 

If you can you really should visit this incredible place, and you won’t regret it. If you can bear the procedure of getting into the country that is, you could have a 4 week holiday somewhere else in the time it takes you to just get a visa.

 

Travelling in Tibet, photo of the himalayas

The back door of China

It was our last few moments in China, or so I thought, as we descended through the evermore lush surroundings towards Nepal. The air was now much warmer, about 5 degrees and the sun had some much welcomed warmth. The road off the plateau, through the long valley and into mountain forests had been a long journey, this is the back end of the middle of nowhere. So I was surprised when I saw the Chinese border building come into sight. I was expecting something small like a 2 man outpost, but it was huge, a building the size of a small airport sitting ominously in the valley, where huge boulders lay all around apparently fallen from above during the huge earthquake that devastated Kathmandu in 2015.

 

After an hour wait for the border building to open we were allowed in, we were the only ones inside apart from about 10 Chinese military officials. I could see right through the building into Nepal, the contrast from the huge modern Chinese border facilitys could not be any different! Standing between us and Nepal was yet more airport style security gates and a few unamused looking border guards. You could see the nerves on our guides face, he looked uneasy just being there.

 

We were given a form to fill out providing details about our movements within China, where we had stayed and when and our reasons for travel. Our guide gave us advice on how to get through the exit procedure smoothly, he told us to say certain things and how to behave in front of the guards. This was all just to exit the country, even I was nervous now. I approached the counter and did all the things I was told, and I was waved through. As I walked away from the security desk I was approached by a military man who said something in Chinese at me, took my passport and disappeared into a back office. “Here we go” I thought, “Gulag time for me”, I’m glad I had backed up my photos the day before. 15 minutes went by, and the man returned with my passport, my nerves settled as he handed it back. What on earth could he have been doing with it all this time!

 

Travelling in Tibet, photo of the himalayas

So that was my time in China, as we exited the border ahead of me was a totally different world. I could see Nepalese immigration customs, it couldn’t be any different, two wooden tables and a corrugated metal hut with men staying warm huddled around a burning tyre. This is my kind of place! Ahead of us was a 12 hour journey, in a knackered old bus on a knackered old road, through the Himalayas and on to Kathmandu…..